Wasted Space

This waterfront plot in Coconut Grove isn't park land,it's a factory. A lawsuit factory.

City officials lapped it up like an architectural parfait. The way they saw it, the Brickell Avenue boom -- gleaming, skyscraping condos rising along the waterfront as quickly as anyone with a few dollars could find a construction crane -- was arriving in the Grove.

Village residents, on the other hand, are known for their anti-development zeal, and many failed to share their elected officials' taste for suites. The project's opponents noticed with relief that while the Community Planning and Revitalization Department had approved the plans, staffers had attached myriad conditions. A big hangup was traffic: Compact and congested, Coconut Grove could not support a massive condo project without additional access from the site onto McFarlane Road. The developers solved the problem by adding to their blueprints a new road across the parking lot of adjacent St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.

Bad call. The owners didn't count on the wrath of St. Stephen's congregation. Many members balked at the idea of a road running past the playground near their children's grammar school. "I began working on this the day my child started junior kindergarten and now he's in the tenth grade," grumbles Linda Dann, a St. Stephen's parent who became active in the fight to nix the condo complex.

The partners also failed to factor in the environmental backlash that resulted when they called for a gutting of the property's hardwood hammock. Activists, including the esteemed Marjory Stoneman Douglas, joined the church parents to sway the commission. Ultimately they succeeded. On November 12, 1984, the commissioners voted 3-2 to kill the project.

Still, they gave the developers an extraordinary second chance: Instead of going by the law and waiting a year before presenting another development plan, the partners were invited to revisit the commission as soon as they were ready. Six months was all it took to craft another, slightly smaller plan. Instead of 195 condos, there would be only 150. Instead of 80,000 square feet of commercial restaurants and shops, there would be only 49,000. The parking garage would hold only 533 spaces.

The planning department conditionally approved the plan once again, but it was rejected by the Zoning Board and the Planning Advisory Board. Without waiting for a public hearing before the city commission, the developers withdrew the plans and the project died a second death.

It was dawning on city officials, meanwhile, that the property might make a nice park. That way the Grove's anti-development soldiers would be appeased. Better still, the city would be in a better position to proceed with its plan to develop Bayside Marketplace downtown.

A shopping mall, food court, and eventual mothership to a Hard Rock Cafe, Bayside was born as the city's attempt to revitalize Bayfront Park. In 1985 construction was ready to begin. But to build docks and pavilions on the waterfront, the city needed special permits from the state. During a visit to then-governor Bob Graham, Commissioner J.L. Plummer proposed a trade: If the city were allowed to proceed with Bayside, he'd create a trust fund to collect a portion of the developer's rent paid to the city each year, with the money earmarked for the purchase of waterfront property along the Miami River or Biscayne Bay. The first choice was obvious. "The priority item will be agreed to by the city, once again, and that is the property adjacent to the Barnacle," Plummer told Graham, as recorded in a transcript of the meeting. The governor gave his blessing, and the trust began stockpiling cash.

Yet the owners weren't quite ready to sell. Forty-three days after abandoning their second plan, they came back to the city with an unusual request. They wanted a zoning change, from single-family homes to something more dense, far more dense. The change, if approved, would permit not only a development of, say, 195 condo units and a 650-space parking garage, but something four times that dense.

In itself, a zoning-change request isn't uncommon. But astonished officials didn't fail to discern that the owners stood to benefit handsomely from a change that would boost the value of their land. They also noticed that the partners had not attached any blueprints to their request. "[Our previous] recommendations [in favor of the first two projects] are irrelevant because [the third application] is something completely different," a planning department staffer told city commissioners. "It's like comparing, for example, a contract in which you specify all the terms . . . and a blank check. We're recommending against a blank check."

The commissioners agreed.
Thrice rejected, the owners turned to the courts. In a 1986 lawsuit, they alleged that city officials were trying to "take" the land by keeping the value as low as possible, making it easier for the city to buy it for a park. It was a blatant double standard, they complained: The city was pro-development on Brickell Avenue, at CocoWalk, and even on Biscayne Bay, where politically connected restaurateur Monty Trainer was afforded certain exemptions from the rules, such as permission for his customers to park on adjacent city property.

The city, however, prevailed. An appeal failed, as did a second lawsuit, and a third. Five more legal maneuvers -- all primarily regarding the requested zoning change -- failed as well.

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